California Indians — Part III

Oppressive California

California government soon became an instrument of Indian oppression.  In Governor John McDougall’s first address to the California legislature, he promised “… a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”  Ignoring the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War, California denied Indians citizenship, voting rights, and the right to give testimony in courts of law.  Despite California’s admission to the Union as a “free state,” the Indians had no right of redress, and therefore, no protection under the laws of the state of California.

California’s legislature quickly enacted a series of laws that legalized Indian slavery and indenture similarly imposed by Mexico before 1850.  There can be no greater heartbreak than the wanton murder of an Indian child’s parents so that he or she could be enslaved.  Once indentured, a child was thus “property” until reaching the age of 30 (males) or 25 (females).  This law was not repealed until President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in 1863.

In 1854, the federal government appointed Edward F. Beale to serve as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California.  With a budget of $250,000 Beale proceeded to create an Indian preserve in the San Joaquin Valley, chosen because its proximity to livestock raiding by Southern California Indians.  Three tribes were relocated on this area’s 50,000 acres of barren land.  Despite the vast allocation of funds in modern dollars, Beale managed to relocate 200 Indians at San Sebastian.  Within ten years, Edward Beale owned title to most of the Indian set-asides.  Beale became the standard for American Indian Agents for well over fifty years.

Throughout the 19th Century, California Indians struggled to survive.  They were starving.  Many crossed over into the white world by finding jobs on white-owned ranches and farms.  Episodes of Indian conflict became fewer because there were almost no Indians left alive in California.  Some historians claim that one explanation for the few that did survive was that the Indians turned to a messianic cult movement that became known as the Ghost Dance of the 1870s.  Somewhat associated with the American missionary movement, adherents of the Ghost Dance became pan-tribal.  The movement promised a return of dead loved ones and family members.  At a time of dwindling Indian populations, of deep depression, the movement offered the disaffected greater hope for the future.  Despite lasting only a few years, the Ghost Dance was fundamental in revitalizing intra-tribal religious integration.

Conflict Renewed

In 1861, the United States went to war — with itself.  With most federal troops relocated eastward to participate in the war of attrition, California Indians went on the warpath, beginning in Northwestern California.  Why the northwestern part of the state?  It was there that deeply paranoid and aggressively over-reactive settlers routinely murdered local Indians, burned their villages, and occupied their lands.  White attempts to disarm the Indians met with fierce resistance.  As early as 1858, federal troops captured members of the Wilkut and Chilula tribes and deported them to the Indian Reservation at Mendocino.  Indian resistance to forced relocation seemed to justify the murder of peaceful, non-threatening Indians by local militia.

Certain members of the Hupa Tribe agreed to assist these militia in hunting down their hostile neighbors, but despite their cooperation and participation in suppressing Indian resistance, they too were rounded up and confined to the Hupa Indian Reservation in 1864.

California and federal officials greatly underestimated the number of surviving California Indians, so that when they made plans to arrest and remove all remaining California Indians to reservations, the Indians overwhelmed them.

There were several causes for the violence that began in the late 1850s.  Indians fortunate enough to have been assigned to reservations in their aboriginal territories were reluctant to share scant advantages with newly arrived (outsider) Indians.  When officials relocated “foreign” Indians to the Round Valley Reservation, violence among them was the result.  Each tribe’s creation story emphasized the sacred nature of its own particular landscape and Indian tradition emphasized territorially; to stray from ancestral lands required one to steal food resources from neighboring tribes.  Whites simply could not fathom the intensity and depth of the Indians’ spiritual attachment to their territories.

In 1859, white settlers attacked and massacred 70 (plus) Achomawi Indians, sixty of whom were women and children.  Known as the Pitt River Massacre, the squatters later justified this mass murder by claiming that they feared the Indians would steal their food.  For their part, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had no interest in protecting the Indians or demanding justice on their behalf. 

Modoc and Klamath Indians share a common language and the Modoc Plateau.  Neighboring tribes included Shasta, Rogue River, Northern Paiute, Karuk, and Yurok Indians.  The Modoc homeland was located in the lower Klamath Lake region.  The Modoc’s first European contacts came after the opening of the Applegate Trail; many events of the Modoc War took place along the Applegate.  Beginning in 1847, Modoc warriors frequently attacked white emigrants for encroaching on their territory.  In 1852, such an encroachment resulted in the complete destruction of the offending wagon train; there was only one survivor.  His report of the attack set off a series of revenge killings on both sides. 

In 1864, Klamath and Modoc Indians made a treaty with the United States government.  The treaty required the Indians to cede traditional lands; in return, the U. S. promised an initial lump-sum payment and additional annual payments over fifteen years.  The US also promised to provide a reservation, stipulating that members from other tribes could be placed on the reservation, as well — but agreed to limit the reservation’s population to around 2,000 and no more than three tribes.

The land on the US reservation failed to provide sufficient food for both the Klamath and Modoc people.  Illness and tension between the two tribes escalated.  The Modoc requested a separate reservation, one closer to their ancestral home, but neither the federal or California government’s approved.  As a consequence, a Modoc warrior named Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack)[i] twice led his people off the reservations.  He was twice captured and returned against his will.  In 1872, Captain Jack left the reservation for a third time.  Violence and mass murder was the order of the day surrounding the Modoc War of 1872.  The Modoc finally refused to allow themselves deported to Oregon.

To survive the hardships foisted upon them by outsiders, the Indians had to become innovative and adaptable to change.  Those who accomplished this survived; those who would not, or could not change, perished.  One adaptation was the manner in which they chose their leaders, and this may have been the result of not being able to access their traditional lands, the sacred places revered for so many thousands of years.  Another factor was that under President U. S. Grant, Christian missionaries took over the responsibility for managing Indian reservations[ii].  These were men who were determined to destroy Indian culture through forced assimilation programs — some of which remained in place well into the 20th Century.    Given these circumstances, it should be no surprise that Indian leaders, such as Captain Jack, decided to take matters into his own hands.  In 1870, Captain Jack led a band of 200 Indians away from the reservation and returned to their traditional land at Lost River.  When they arrived, they discovered that a number of white settlers had taken over these lands.  Indian Agent Alfred B. Meacham recommended to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C. that Captain Jack’s Modoc be allowed exclusive reservation land.  Meacham recommended that Jack remain at Clear Lake in Oregon until the Commissioner made his decision — but the settlers in Oregon complained that Modoc were raiding their homesteads.  Of course, the allegations were true.  The Modoc did raid for food (and hunted) to feed their families because the government’s food allotments were insufficient.


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.


[i] Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack) (1837-1873) was Chief of the Modoc Tribe in California and Oregon.  He was the first and (to my knowledge) the only Indian ever charged with and executed for “war crimes”.  The federal government executed Captain Jack’s three companions for murder.

[ii] See also, U. S. Grant and the Quaker Peace Policy.

(Continued next week)

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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3 Responses to California Indians — Part III

  1. So, help me out here. Who are “the good guys”?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Your question is vital to gaining a full appreciation of — and indeed, is the only true benefit — of history. What lessons can we take away from what happened? What conclusions can we draw about the men and women who were the primary actors in the drama? The United States is not the lone ranger because you will observe that similar events occurred at different times and at different places — beginning with Rome’s conquest of most Western Europe and extending through Europe’s conquest of the Americas. It has also happened in Australia and New Zealand — and even throughout East Asia.

      Similar dramas are unfolding even now as one group of people seek dominance over others. After reading the next (final) section, you may note that for all the rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth by American university professors, all the do-gooder organizations that claim concern for the plight of the American Indian, nothing of any significance has changed for the better in the lives of most natives — and you may even notice that the heaviest hand on any Indian group today belongs to the Indian’s own tribal council.

      It would seem that human beings, no matter where they live, are terribly flawed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bajabugz says:

    To be the good guy you better win the war. Imagine if Germany won WW2. How many allied bomber pilots would pay for bombing civilians

    Liked by 1 person

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